Mumbai: The phone for most of us has become as important as electricity. Most of us cannot live without it. There are currently around 850 million mobile devices in India and about 350 million smartphones. However, given the capabilities of a smartphone, it’s a wonder that we still call it a phone.

After all, a smartphone today is a one-in-all convergence powerhouse device—it’s your radio (an extremely sophisticated one), your music device, your gaming device, your television, your messenger, your doctor, your secretary, your camera, your wallet, and even your bank. It packs features, functionality, form-factor, portability and processing power.

However at least till mid-2000, that was not the case. Most people, then, made call from landlines. It used to take years to even get a landline at home. Even when the cellphone was first introduced in the country in the mid-90s, a phone call used to cost about Rs16 a minute. So people would use their pagers (remember those beepers?) to send and receive messages. Only the wealthy could use cellphones.

Ironically, on Friday, it was the country’s wealthiest man Mukesh Ambani who decided to give his telecom arm Reliance Jio Infocomm’s feature phones for just a security deposit of Rs1,500 to be fully refunded in 3 years—effectively making the phone free to users other than the interest that the company will earn on the sum over three years.

Digital natives may hardly be surprised with this development. After all, they were born with the internet and smartphones and expect most things to be free today. But today’s iPhones or Android-powered phones are nothing like the one which Martin Cooper—a Motorola researcher and executive—developed for use on a cellular network and on which he made his first call on 3 April 1973 to his rival— Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs.

The “brick" or “shoe", as the hand phone was called, weighed over a kilogram and was 10 inches long. In contrast, today’s cellphones are slim and have chips that rival those in laptops and personal computers (PCs). Of course, some smartphones are much more expensive than PCs.

The first generation iPhone was released on 29 June 2007. There have been multiple new hardware iterations since. Today’s phones have touch screens and virtual keyboards. They can be paired (synced) with wearables. For instance, you can monitor your running and your health on your smartwatch or even do some banking transactions on it if you wish to impress people. Touch screens themselves have moved from resistive to capacitive. Smartphones also now use biometrics. For instance, you can use fingerprints and iris scans to unlock your device.

Today, you can even use voice to instruct smartphones with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Apple Inc.’s Siri, Microsoft Corp.’s Cortana, Inc.’s Alexa or Google Inc.’s Allo, for instance, all use AI. So do the smart chat-bots on many messaging apps, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik and Telegram. You can talk to your car using your phone’s Bluetooth capabilities or use your phone to lock your home or turn on the lights.

Batteries, though, still remain the Achilles heel of smartphones especially. Ironically, it was low-powered small batteries that had made hand-held cellular phones possible. Today, we have companies trying to figure out how to increase the life of the lithium-batteries, failing which most users have to keep on recharging their phones or carry power banks with them (which also add to the bulky look and weight).

Digital natives might also think that Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM, phones are a given. Not so. Nevertheless, GSM feature phones, the most popular variety—as opposed to CDMA (code division multiple access) ones (for instance, the ones that were earlier used by Reliance Communications Ltd)—still require a microchip called a Subscriber Identity Module or SIM card, to function.

The SIM card was approximately the size of a small postage stamp (today’s micro-SIMs and nano-SIMs are tinier) and was usually placed underneath the battery in the rear of the unit. The SIM securely stored the service-subscriber key (IMSI) and allowed users to change phones by simply removing the SIM card from one mobile phone and inserting it into another. That is no longer possible in most smartphones, unless you take it to a service centre.

As for data, telcos thrive on acronyms that most users little understand or even care about. Nevertheless, TDD LTE (also known as TD LTE) stands for time division duplexing-long term evolution. FDD LTE stands for frequency-division duplexing LTE. Both TDD and FDD differ in the way they treat data. Duplexing means a phone can transmit and receive simultaneously. TDD means the “receive" and “transmit" channels divide the time between them on the same frequency band. This means you can have more bandwidth available for either downloading or uploading. FDD, on the other hand, uses a slightly different frequency for uploading and downloading. This does result in less possible interference and, hence, better reception. However, there are too many variables to decide which standard scores more when talking about faster downloads.

In March 2008, the International Telecommunications Union-radio communications sector (ITU-R) specified a set of requirements for 4G standards, named the International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced (IMT-Advanced) specification, setting peak speed requirements for 4G service at 100 megabits per second (Mbit/s) for high mobility communication (such as from trains and cars) and one gigabit per second (Gbit/s) for low mobility communication (such as pedestrians and stationary users). Since the first-release versions of Mobile WiMAX (which failed in India) and LTE (long term evolution) support much less than one Gbit/s peak bit rate, they are not fully IMT-Advanced compliant, but are often branded 4G by service providers.

Today’s smartphones mostly take advantage of third generation or 3G technology which have potential transfer speeds of up to three Mbps (about 15 seconds to download a three-minute MP3 song). Compared with that, the fastest 2G phones can achieve up to 144Kbps (about eight minutes to download a three-minute song). India also has the speedier 4G services in some metros being offered by telecom operators such as Bharti Airtel Ltd.

Telecom services providers in India are now touting their fourth-generation (4G) networks and, in many cases, encouraging users to replace their 3G SIMs with 4G SIMs. The big three—Bharti Airtel Ltd, Vodafone India Pvt. Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd— are banking on high-speed 4G services. Reliance Jio is primarily banking on Voice over Long Term Evolution (VoLTE), which is essentially voice over internet protocol or IP-based LTE network. Similar to how the internet works, VoLTE relies on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) network, resulting in voice services being delivered as data flows.

Meanwhile, the buzz on fifth-generation, or 5G technology, is getting stronger. The speed of 5G is much faster than 4G—20 gigabits per second, fast enough to download HD movies in a span of seconds—and is expected to be the driver for trends such as the internet of things (IoT) and initiatives such as smart cities and digital India. However, 5G networks are not expected to roll out until 2020.

Even if one does not hazard predicting the future of the phone, bendable and foldable phones will soon see the light of day. And people will find use for them too. Moreover, a smartphone is the last personal gadget that will use a physical human body part—fingers—to be operated, and an on-demand user-interface. In the near future, all cellphones will be voice-activated, and “Always ON" with improvements in battery life. Phones will be used for virtual reality and augmented reality activities.

Meanwhile, for want of a better name, let’s continue call this powerhouse a phone.

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